In conversation with the artistic polyglot Larry Rivers, David Hockney once said that he would prefer to have his paintings considered beautiful, rather than interesting, because interesting sounds on its way there, whereas beautiful can knock you out. As recounted in a memoir by Jill Johnston, the Village Voice‘s gonzo dance critic of the 1960s, Hockney’s words reverberate like a veiled criticism of the East Village’s then-rising performance art scene, which threatened the boundaries of fine art with its unruly synthesis of dance, theater, poetry, sculpture, and painting.
Johnston’s excerpt is just one passage in a myriad of long texts that dot the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, which feels like a long overdue thesis on how to correctly present performance within a museum — not that MoMA has always had a fuzzy-warm relationship with the art form. Although the museum began collecting what they call “time-based art” in the 1960s, they did not establish an official department for media and performance until 2006.
Today, that great backlog of work has allowed curators to pull off a stunning and unforeseen exhibition of performance art. Judson Dance Theater comprises a who’s-who smorgasbord of great downtown artists from the 1960s: Yvonne Rainer, Gene Friedman, Anna Halprin, Carolee Schneemann, Judith Malina, Robert Rauschenberg, and Fred Herko, to name only a few.
First housed in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Judson Dance Theater met for a series of workshops, from 1962 to 1964, that ultimately redefined the limits of dance through a counter-cultural cocktail of free-association and planned chaos. Quite literally, the church became a sanctuary for the star-crossed artists who roamed its confines. Collaboration thus reigned supreme in this ecosystem of anything goes.
Constellation is not the right term for describing the relationships between these artists, although they did create work dotting downtown’s limits from East to West Side, Union Square to Broome Street. Strange as it sounds, this community was more like a deranged square dance traipsing through Manhattan’s derelict neighborhoods. Within this uniquely effervescent do-si-do, aesthetics and ideas freely transferred from one artist to the next. This complex matrix of performance philosophies would eventually coalesce into what we define as postmodern dance — the reduction of choreography to its barest essentials such that the very nature of dance is questioned.
Take, for example, two figures coming out from the woodwork of a stationary audience. They approach a rope swing affixed to the ceiling high above. Music plays with the atonal scratching of records and who knows what else. The female figure climbs into the rope’s loop, perching in a pedestrian yet statuesque pose. As she sits on the rope swing, the male figure winds the rope around and around, then releases. She spins; he observes in repose. And that’s it.
Ballet this is not. What’s described above is actually one of Simone Forti’s “Dance Constructions,” a series of choreographies that replicate pedestrian movement to elevate its everyday status to art. (MoMA has restaged five of these pieces in partnership with Danspace Project for the exhibition.) The effect that Forti’s Dada-like revelation had on the surrounding arts ecosystem cannot be overstated; it even played a crucial role in convincing Rainer and Steve Paxton to found the Judson Dance Theater.
Given the cast of well-known faces and figures in Judson Dance Theater, it’s important for exhibition visitors to focus also on the stories of the less-recognizable artists featured. The virtuosic dancer and choreographer Fred Herko is one such example; his story also provides a necessary counterpoint to the exuberant celebrations of the collective otherwise on display — though he only appears in a few photographs and texts throughout the show.
Herko was a force of reckoning within the Judson Dance Theater by all accounts, even contributing two pieces to the group’s inaugural concert. He was a rarity of the pre-Stonewall world: an openly queer performer with classically good looks, willing to saunter across the stage in makeup and drag. But Herko was addicted to amphetamines; his movements were often epileptic, wobbling into the void before stuttering uncontrollably to a stop. His addiction ultimately contributed to his suicide, at age 28, on October 27, 1964. That day, he held a performance for his close friends in an East Village apartment. Witnesses say that Herko emerged from the bathtub nude, dancing and occasionally running toward the windows while Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” played in the background. It’s said that Herko eventually leaped out the window to his death, performing a perfect jeté in which no part of his body touched the sill. (There is still debate over whether Herko intended to kill himself; at the time of his death, he was high on speed, and possibly LSD.)
Food for thought: the two-year lifespan of the Judson Dance Theater mirrors Herko’s meteoric rise and fall. (In 1964, the company splintered throughout the city to create their own “happenings.”) One is left to speculate on the dynamics between figures of the collective, and how they ultimately feel apart when faced with the harsh sociopolitical and economic realities of bohemian living. And in an exhibition so devoted to introducing new audiences to the exponents of postmodern dance, it feels like MoMA owes its subjects a satisfying sequel, one that can better attest to the complex web of difficulties, setbacks, and sacrifices required of such bold work.
The exhibition is organized by Ana Janevski, Curator, and Thomas J. Lax, Associate Curator, with Martha Joseph, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art.